An interview with Charlie Sohne and Tim Rosser, writers of the upcoming Festival show The Boy Who Danced on Air, about the careful process of writing a show about the Afghani tradition of Bacha bazi, which literally translated means “boy play,” a practice where wealthy men take in poorer boys and train them to dance. Interview conducted by NAMT’s Program Intern Audra LaBrosse.
NAMT: Bacha bazi is not a well-known practice to a Western audience. How did you learn about this tradition and what about it inspired you to write a musical centered on it?
Charlie Sohne: We saw a documentary about bacha bazi called The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan and it kind of smacked us in the face. The access that the filmmaker got to both the men and boys involved was really amazing and the existence of the practice brought up so many questions that to us felt universal to all cultures, including our own. The discussions we had afterwards about religion, the different ways sexuality expresses itself and the intersection of tradition, morality and a community’s power structure made us feel like there was a lot there to be mined.
Tim Rosser: We were also very interested at the time in finding material that “demanded to be musicalized” – as in, it would feel like a let down to tell this story without music because music and dance are essential to this subject matter.
NAMT: Was there a moment of this documentary that stuck out most, that you saw and imagined a dramatic moment immediately?
CS: The most striking moment for me was when one of the boys talks about growing up and owning boys of his own. It was absolutely fascinating to hear how matter of fact it was and how much of an inevitability it was for him.
TR: And that moment was actually the basis and inspiration for the song “When I Have A Boy Of My Own” that ends Act I. (Editors note: listen to a clip from this song on the Festival info page)
NAMT: Historical and cultural accuracy are important in the writing of any show, and especially one with a sensitive subject matter like The Boy Who Danced on Air. What has the process of writing the show been like, keeping this in mind?
CS: Our first step was
to do as much reading as we could. We started with overviews about the political history of Afghanistan and then delved into more specific aspects of Afghan culture – firsthand accounts of people who had actually lived there proved most useful in giving us a picture of the world. We also watched a bunch of documentaries which served us not only as far as getting more information about Afghanistan but also to sort of root us visually in what contemporary Afghanistan looks like. Once we had a draft, we asked that Zarina Maiwandi, who’s an academic with experience in Afghanistan read the piece for accuracy – and she was very kind in making herself available to consult not only on that first draft, but as we developed the piece.
TR: I bought a bunch of CD’s of Afghan folk music when we began working. Beyond that, I learned about the instruments that were local to the region and experimented with those sounds. I’m not too interested in writing music that could be mistaken for actual Afghan folk music, just as I’m not interested in writing music that could be mistaken for Sondheim. I do want to borrow the beautiful sounds, rhythmic patterns and tone I’m hearing on my CD’s but the most important part for me is working them into an expression that feels special and new to me.
NAMT: Tell us a bit more about the musical stylization of the show.
TR: We both agreed pretty early on that we wanted to find a hybrid sound for this show, a mix of east and west. It’s one of the ways we respond to the challenge of giving the story a sense of place while creating something that feels unique to this particular show. It’s also a way to acknowledge that this isn’t just a story about Afghanistan, it’s a bigger picture. I thought it was important to have at least one strummed string instrument in the band. Lutes have played a major part in music of the Middle East. I wanted a piano for warmth and a sense of magic. Western audiences have a lot of associations with the piano. And percussion is the wild card. Percussionists can play anything; they know no borders! Lots of shows begin with a piano reduction, but because this palate is so unusual and not meant for a full orchestra or other familiar kind of treatment down the road, I’ve relied heavily on the program garageband to work out the arrangements as I write the music. It can be incredibly time consuming to work this way, but who knows what a dombura, harmonium, piano and snare drum are going to sound like together? I have no point of reference for this kind of combination. And that’s the fun!
NAMT: Given American involvement with Afghanistan in the past decade, the content and context of the show feel very relevant. Do you think it is important for musical theatre to comment on current events?
CS: I think writing about contemporary topics in musical theater presents its own unique challenge in that musicals take so long to come into being that you risk that the situation you’re writing about changes by the time you’re done. So while the setting of the piece is contemporary and it feels very relevant to us in this country because of our political involvement in Afghanistan, the show is not about the war or even Afghanistan as a whole. While being rooted in a particular place and time, the show deals with something pretty universal: the intersection between a society’s power structure and its views on morality – and at the show’s heart is a timeless and romantic love story.
I do think that musical theatre has an almost magical ability to remind us of a common humanity – if done right, it’s a medium that allows us to empathize with, connect with and understand characters who otherwise we’d hold at a distance. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I really do think that’s the power of song. Because of that, I think it’s wonderful when a musical explores something that an audience might initially feel distanced from or unable to understand – there’s nothing better than walking out of the theater and feeling an unexpected sense of empathy or connection that wasn’t there before.
NAMT: After an audience leaves The Boy Who Danced on Air, what do you hope they are left with?
CS: I think this is probably an area where I come off as annoying, but I worry about saying too much – just because the topic is so rich, and I know what I’ve used to help me organize and clarify the piece, but I want people to have that same flood of feelings and thoughts that I had when I first saw the documentary.
TR: Basically, it’d be great if people are moved enough to talk about the show during the ride home.